Three things I want accounting students to know: Information overload

NOTE: This is a post in a series. You can read the others here:

3 Things I Want Accounting Students to Know - Intro

3 Things I Want Accounting Students to Know - The Career Path

3 Things I Want Accounting Students to Know - CPA Exam


They say accounting is the language of business, but what does that really mean?

I guess it means that accounting is the way we communicate and interpret financial information. But I would argue this analogy of accounting as a language goes even further.

Have you ever learned a foreign language? There are two common ideas about learning a new language.

The first is that it is best to learn at a young age. I’d say this applies to the language of accounting as well. The Bounce, created by the Business Learning Institute, teaches that learning technical proficiencies are critical at the beginning of your career. The greater this force in the beginning, the greater momentum you have and the greater your trajectory into future, more strategic leadership roles. That is not to say that technical learning and refreshing isn’t needed in the latter part of your career, just that it is no longer the main focus. The focus then is on leadership proficiencies.

The lesson: Soak up the technical knowledge available to you now, to prepare yourself for the future.

The second common idea about language is that immersion is one of the best and fastest ways to learn. I took Spanish for only two years -- 8th and 9th grade. But when I went to Mexico after graduating high school and Costa Rica my senior year of college, I was amazed by the things that came back to me. Being surrounded by what you are learning helps you to not only recall information but also to learn better and faster.

I think this idea of learning through immersion is also illustrated in the switch from accounting student to staff. While in school, you are not immersed in accounting. Sure, you are taking classes, but it isn’t part of your everyday life. You haven’t seen it applied. The theories and ideas you learn in school will come to life as a staff and become second nature as you grow. During my second year, I was amazed looking back through work papers from the year before by how much I had grown. What used to take me hours to do just months ago was now easy. What I thought I could never do, I was now helping others do.

While grinding through your course load, you are hit with an overload of information. Rather like the English language, U.S. GAAP is rule-based (ie. when two vowels go walking ...). But also like the English language, there are exceptions to every rule and even exceptions to the exceptions.

So what lesson can be learned in this? It’s hard! Have you tried to memorize a dictionary? Would you recommend learning a language by just doing that? Then why would you try to memorize the tax code or all of GAAP? U.S. GAAP is approximately 17,000 pages, and that’s the condensed version codification brought us; it used to be 25,000! To try and know everything is out of the question. Yes, for tests (the CPA exam included) you often need to know various rules and formulas. But even then, the most important part is being able to apply them, not just regurgitate them.

But do not feel overwhelmed. Once in the profession, you have a plethora of research tools available to you. Becoming a master researcher -- not an external hard drive -- is the skill you really need. You are not going to be able to answer every question a client asks you on a particular code, regulation or standard. But you will learn, with practice, where or sometimes who to go to for the answers.

What’s my point? Partly to empathize with all of you pushing through the headaches produced by intermediate accounting, but primarily to let you know that it gets better. Just because you are struggling with intermediate doesn’t mean you’re not suited for the accounting profession. Study, reach out for help from fellow students and professors, but don’t give up. You are learning a whole new language and it’s hard. You can learn the academic fundamentals and once immersed in accounting, you’ll have the satisfaction of helping clients, colleagues, and employers interpret the numbers.

Don’t worry. If all else fails, there’s always Google.

Is accounting a foreign language to you? What are you doing to become bilingual?


Rebekah Olson